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USDA policy changes threaten SNAP eligibility

on November 4, 2019

About one quarter of Californians who use Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits would lose or reduce their benefits if the USDA Food and Nutrition Service enacts a proposed rule change to the program. The rule, which would put a ceiling on the amount people can spend on utilities while remaining eligible for SNAP benefits, is the third proposed reduction to the program within the year. 

SNAP, an aid program run by the federal government, provides a modest food budget to recipients via an electronic benefits transfer card that works like a debit card. It can be used at grocery stores, corner stores, farmers’ markets and other food retailers. SNAP benefits can be used for any food, except hot food or restaurant food, and also to purchase seeds and plants to grow food. People of any age can use SNAP, including people who have a regular income and people who are experiencing homelessness. CalFresh is California’s branch of SNAP.

A person’s benefit level is currently calculated by factoring in their household’s income and housing costs, among other variables. One of these is how much the household spends on utilities, and is factored in using a Standard Utility Allowance (SUA), which is calculated by each state and has some in-state flexibility based on typical heating and cooling costs for different regions. 

USDA officials are proposing a change that would create a new set of state standards. The new rule would be based on a single utility allowance and would not allow for in-state regional variations. People whose utility expenses exceed this new ceiling would no longer be eligible to receive SNAP benefits.

The proposed change could result in a reduction of $4.5 billion in food aid over the course of five years, according to the USDA’s regulatory impact analysis of the rule. The public has a period until December 2 to submit comments on the rule.

“Essentially, it’s a proposed rule that changes how utilities are deducted from an individual’s benefit determination for CalFresh,” said Melissa Cannon, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates, a food policy and advocacy research agency and think tank.  

“This is the latest attack on the SNAP program,” Cannon continued. “This is the third proposed rule that’s targeted the SNAP program.”

Another recently-proposed rule, introduced in July, would remove what’s called “categorical eligibility.” Currently, people who are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—a grant program that provides time-limited funds for families who are struggling to pay for basic needs—automatically receive SNAP benefits as well. 

The other proposed rule, which was introduced in late December, 2018, proposed increasing the job requirement; able-bodied adults without dependents who cannot find and keep 20 hours of work a week will no longer be able to use SNAP. The rule would revoke a time limit waiver for getting a job, which previously existed in regions where unemployment is over 10 percent, or lacks sufficient jobs.

The comment period for the categorical eligibility rule closed on November 1, and the job requirement rule is under review by the USDA.

A USDA FNS spokesperson and multiple employees did not return requests for comment. But in a press release published on October 1, agency officials stated that the calculation for the new utility rule would “modernize the way utility costs are factored in when states calculate a household’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.”

“This reform would improve integrity and modernize benefit calculations by ensuring standard utility allowances better align with what households actually pay for utilities, with data-driven adjustments for each state to reflect real differences in these costs,” the release continued. “This helps to ensure that their SNAP benefit amounts reflect their true circumstances, no matter which state they call home.”

Cannon said that she thinks the new rule would have dramatic effects if it’s implemented alongside the other proposed rules, and that the cumulative effect would be “really devastating and harmful to many of the people in our state and across the country who are already struggling to get by.”

“It’s really just a part of a more systematic attack on working-class and low-income Californians, and it’s a way to cut food assistance,” she said.

Currently, states have some flexibility in how they calculate SNAP eligibility. California’s rubric currently allows for some regional variations in how much people spend on their utility bills. This spending can differ in areas with more severe weather, or for households with specific needs. Cannon said that for people who live in the Central Valley and have high heating costs, or who live in the mountains and have high cooling costs, there are currently localized deductions which they can take, which are factored into their benefit determination. This allows them to still receive SNAP benefits even if their utilities spending is above the state average. 

But Cannon said that establishing a national standard for the amount which all states will allow SNAP users to spend on utilities would discard this local flexibility.

According to an analysis by Food and Nutrition Service researchers published on October 3, the new rules could have the greatest negative effect on senior citizens. Households with an elderly individual might use more heat, and be more dependent on heating and cooling. The rules will also disproportionately affect households with people with disabilities. 

Stephen Knight, the director of policy and partnerships at the Alameda County Food Bank, said that he thinks this rule, if adopted, would reinforce class inequality. He called it “unconscionable to be targeting people at the bottom of the income scale, given the remarkable benefits that have been given to people at the top of the income scale by the federal government in recent years.”

“The cost of living in many areas of California, and Alameda County particularly, is very high and many people are struggling to get by,” said Knight. “Many community members rely on investments like SNAP to feed themselves and their families, and this administration continues to come after this program.”

After the comment period for the new rule ends, the government is supposed to take all public comments into consideration, and either pass the rule or an amended rule. Cannon said that while she hopes USDA FNS officials will take her organization and supporter comments into consideration, there is no guarantee that they will use the submitted information in a concrete way. Still, California Food Policy Advocates are urging the public to comment.

On a recent evening at Last Phase Loaves and Fish Food program, where food is distributed to anyone who needs it every Monday and Friday, a line wrapped all the way around the street corner, as people lined up to tables offering fresh, raw chicken, bread and watermelon.

Madlynn Johnson, who was seated in a mobility scooter at the end of the tables, chatting with her friends running the event, is an Oakland resident who uses SNAP. She said that she gets about $15 in benefits a month, which she is grateful to have. But, she said, it doesn’t always cover foods for her specific dietary needs, including particular lactose-free milks.

“It’s OK, but I need to have fresh foods,” she said. Speaking about the proposed rule, she said that it “doesn’t sound quite equal.”

Nakiesha Hodge, another Oakland resident who uses SNAP, said that food from CalFresh currently accounts for about half of the total food she and her son consume. She said that she views CalFresh as a temporary service, and that people should use the benefits with the mindset that they could be taken away. She said that the current rules are not easy to understand, but that people should make sure they are familiar with them if they’re going to use CalFresh.

“We believe that food is a basic human right—and that may sound like some abstract, general statement, but CalFresh makes that right real in the lives of tens of thousands of people in Oakland,” Knight said. 

1 Comment

  1. […] The most recent change, proposed in October, could change how SNAP eligibility is calculated, specifically the limits that determine how much a recipient can spend on their utilities bill. A person’s benefit level is currently calculated by factoring in their household’s income and housing costs, among other variables. A change affecting this calculation could potentially cut access to one quarter of Californians.  […]

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